"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Readers Respond to ECHOES OF ELIZABETH BISHOP -- Part 3

In June 2013, the EBSNS launched Echoes of Elizabeth Bishop: The Elizabeth Bishop Centenary (2011) Writing Competition. The editors have asked a some of our readers to provide a comment, a personal response, to the collection. We will post them over the next few weeks. We hope these readers’ responses will tempt you to buy a copy for your own library. It also makes a wonderful Christmas gift!

You find out more about Echoes on the EBSNS website:
You can purchase online at: http://www.elizabethbishopns.org/publications.html or at Bookmark, on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, N.S.

Response from Helen Cannon

A recent New York Times Book Review featured an essay by Phillip Lopate who confesses that despite the literary accolades he’s received over the years, he nevertheless finds himself wondering why his work has not received this prize or that. For aspiring writers, it’s never enough. “Regrettably, I’ve never been very good at counting my blessings,” Lopate admits, so we’re made aware an established and lauded writer — one of the literary demigods — can still crave prizes and formal recognition. Why not a Guggenheim, and what about the MacArthur, and while he’s dreaming, why not the Nobel?

On the page opposite Lopate’s obsessing about awards is a feature on the history and anniversary of the Caldecott medal. “It is deeply satisfying to win a prize in front of a lot of people.” E.B. White put these words in the mouth of an aspiring pig by the name of Wilbur, who recognizes that his very life was saved by his spider friend’s terse accolade, “Some pig!”

Clearly prizes and recognitions encourage and give affirmation to writers, young and old. Elizabeth Bishop herself found impetus and incentive to write by way of winning a prize offered by The New Yorker magazine. With a purse of one thousand dollars, this fellowship was aimed at young writers hoping to publish their first books. Katharine White, then the poetry editor at The New Yorker, encouraged Bishop to submit, which she did, and won. This marked only the beginning of The New Yorker’s editing and publishing of Bishop’s poetry and prose. Most writers are spurred on by publication. Emily Dickinson, with her dresser drawer poetry, is the rare exception.

All of this is to say that I consider the Bishop centenary project, Echoes, to be of high merit, because of the incentive it offered to writers, young and old. Most of the writers and artists whose works appear in Echoes had already been recognized in an earlier Bishop centenary competition, but Echoes brings to fruition by way of publication, and singularly beautiful publication at that. Gaspereau Press of Nova Scotia refuses anything short of perfection in its publishing, and this handsome little booklet proves the point with its navy textured jacket and beautiful silver and navy flowered bound cover. All of the writers and artists represented in this beautiful chapbook have obvious reason to feel proud.

But this lovely book not only serves as incentive and recognition to writers young and old, it also offers quality to readers. From Mary Jo Anderson’s confident and wonderful opening essay, “Home Body,” to Laurie Gunn’s closing photo image, “Looking Towards the Blacksmith Shop,” possessors of this little book have sure reason to value it.

I thought for a long while about the choice of title and the reasoning behind it, then I read again Teresa Alexander Arab’s paragraph accompanying her resonant photograph that she calls “The Walker.” In that paragraph Arab gives ample and reasonable validity to the choice of title: “... A photograph shows a moment that can never be repeated, but it is an  echo of that moment only.” Arab then accurately and sensitively considers Bishop’s poem “One Art,” and concludes that every loss leaves an echo behind — “a hole ... that is the exact size and shape of the loss. The art of loss is not so much the acceptance of loss but recognition of the echo it leaves in our lives, and in some cases our souls. ... Life can [be] viewed as a series of losses, but we can take comfort in the echoes left behind until we too are lost.”

This understanding of echoes certainly sets the tone for the more somber pieces in the collection, but in the happier entries, echoes reflect a sure sense of place. Perhaps I am most charmed by the youngsters winning submissions, their sure affirmations of place and their own place in it,  and I feel sure that Bishop would agree ....

Helen Cannon is a retired teacher of Creative Nonfiction and Contemporary Women’s Literature.  She loved teaching at Utah State University and loved her students, many of whom now remain her fast friends. For a dozen or more years, Helen has had the good fortune to be a student of Sandra Barry, who teaches her most all there is to know about Elizabeth Bishop. She also learns from her mentor about Canadian life and letters, past and present, and, by example, how to live an informed, principled, and giving and good life.

 Photograph by Binnie Brennan

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